It has been a year since a relatively young and absolutely unexperienced presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelensky was elected. In the first round of presidential elections (March 31, 2019), where 39 candidates competed to lead Ukraine, Zelensky got over 30% of votes. The incumbent, his closest competitor, got a bit more than 15%. And in the second round (April 22, 2019), the novice got 73% with full victory in all macro-regions of a very diverse country. In many conversations and interviews, I was told by Zelensky’s voters that this victory seemed to be like a fairy tale, a dream of a better future come true.
Zelensky has a rare talent for inspiring people. He turned the traditionally skeptical Ukrainians into an optimistic nation: an unprecedented 76% of Ukrainians became optimists in 2019. Zelensky’s perestroika-like change — neither a revolution with its all consequent bloodshed and injustice nor a fruitless reform — was expected to bring to a frustrated nation essentially three things: 1) maximum efforts for peace in Donbass and the end of war, 2) less corruption compared to the pre- and post-Maidan elites and good and responsive governance, and 3) improvement of the economic well-being of ordinary Ukrainians.
So, what did the new president and his team deliver? Which expectations have been met a year later?
War and Peace
To fulfill his promise on ending the war in Donbass, Zelensky has restarted negotiations with Moscow, Paris, and Berlin. The Minsk talks are much more active than they were in 2017 through early 2019. However, the re-activated process still did not deliver either peace or stable armistice.
So far, talks with Russia have brought the long-awaited prisoner swaps. In September 2019, seventy prisoners (35 held by Ukraine and 35 held by the Russia-backed separatists) were exchanged. Another two hundred prisoners were exchanged in December of the same year. Another exchange involving a larger number of detainees is expected soon.
The front-line withdrawal of troops has started in the last six months. The areas of troop withdrawal were among the least dangerous on the front line, but this was expected to create some level of trust between the warring sides and bring down the casualty toll among civilians and combatants alike.
Regretfully, however, the situation in the Donbass remains explosive. Despite the ongoing intensified talks in Minsk — now with new representatives of Ukraine and Russia, the new head of Zelensky’s staff, Andriy Yermak, and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s new administration deputy head Dmitry Kozak — the death toll on the frontline did not decrease. The pullbacks have changed the defense lines of Ukrainian army and separatist combatants, causing a vacuum of security in certain zones and a subsequent a series of battles in January and February 2020. The pace of prisoner swaps has slowed down. And the new summit in the Normandy format is postponed.
After a year of attempts, the Ukraine-Russia conflict resolution has not achieved tangible results so far. The war goes on and Crimea remains an unaddressed issue in the Kiev-Moscow dialogue overall, despite its potential weight as a lever for the Ukrainian party in the talks.
The new Ukrainian government has taken some important steps against corruption but none of them seem to bear tangible results so far. Zelensky’s team imposed legislation that has lifted Poroshenko-presidency constraints on the anti-corruption system. The National Agency for Prevention of Corruption (NAPC) was reformed to sever control by the oligarchic clans. The SBU leadership became subject to open reporting in e-assets declarations. The government also managed to pass a law that re-establishes criminal liability for the illegal enrichment of officials.
Zelensky started the process of changing the heads of many new anti-corruption institutes, including the NAPC, the Special Anticorruption Prosecutor's Office (SAPO), the National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU), the, the State Bureau of Investigations (SBI), the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), and the Anti-Corruption Court of Ukraine (ACCU). He appointed his ‘100% loyal’ general prosecutors (one in June 2019, the second in March 2020). These many agencies made some arrests of former president Petro Poroshenko's associates accused of corruption. Among them: Oleg Hladkovsky, a Poroshenko business partner and top defense official; an ex-MP from the People’s Front party Serhii Pashinsky; ex-deputy minister for the occupied territories Yuri Hrymchak. Poroshenko himself appeared to be involved in many criminal cases investigated by the prosecutor general.
However, none of the arrested remained detained. Their cases have not been brought to courts. And it looks like they all have good chances to not to be brought to court at all.
Law enforcement agencies are in constant conflict with each other, while their heads are being relentlessly changed. And Zelensky himself seems to turn a blind eye to the corruption accusations of his own associates.
Ukraine’s economy has entered into dire straits. Its GDP, especially industrial production, dropped in the last quarter of 2019. In many ways, this happened due to very unwise strengthening of the national currency, which was the result of the National Bank and Ministry of Finance’s ill-advised policies. The first quarter of 2020 was overshadowed by the looming economic crisis and COVID-19 pandemic. With over $ 16 bln in debt to be paid in 2020, Ukraine is now fully dependent on the goodwill of the International Monetary Fund to provide additional funding for the country to avoid default. And the global economic slowdown will hit Ukraine’s export-oriented economy hard.
In 2019, the Zelensky team managed to increase pensions for retired people. However, the promise to decrease the price of community services was not implemented: the economic situation was not conducive to such a change.
So, Zelensky’s achievements are rather meager. Ukraine is far from the reintegration of Donbass and the future of Crimea remains unclear. Corruption persists and creeps back into Ukraine’s leadership. The economic well-being of Ukrainians was not improved to the level at which it could be immune to global decline and the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet recent polls show that the Ukrainian population remains optimistic. About 50% of Ukrainians still hope for a better change with Zelensky’s presidency. However, there is a growing number of those frustrated (30%) and fearful of future (up to 20%). With the start of the pandemic and quarantine, Ukrainians show trust in the Zelensky government’s actions against infection (56%). But will they stick to this trust in a month, when the savings of 60% of the population will have been spent?
The fairy tale seems to have come to an end, and reality looks pretty dire.